Fighting for equal pay for Southeast Asian American women

Cropped Infographic for AAPI Equal Pay Day (Photo Credit: NAPAWF)

By Guest Contributors: Sung Yeon Choimorrow and Vimala Phongsavanh, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum

Disaggregated data indicates that Southeast Asian women in the U.S. are making on average 61 cents to the white male dollar — and this pay disparity is hurting their ability to make choices about their bodies, their lives, and their families.

Imagine having to work an extra nine months to for your pay to catch up to that of a white American man. For millions of Southeast Asian American women, this is no fictional scenario.

In 1981, Vimala’s parents and sister fled the country of Laos to escape political persecution and arrived in Rhode Island as refugees. Just a few months after settling in, her mother, Kongdeaune, began working at a factory where she ended up being paid the same minimum wage for the next 35 years of her life. She worked many 16 hour days just to be able to afford to give her kids a comfortable life and send some money back home to her family in Laos — and she did all of this without paid sick leave or vacation. Vimala saw the weight of the financial burden take a toll on her mother’s emotional and physical health. Women like Kongdeaune would have greatly benefited from equal pay and — and it’s about time they get it.

On September 12, we observe Southeast Asian Equal Pay Day, which marks the end of a month-long observance of Southeast Asian Equal Pay Days that include Vietnamese and Cambodian Women’s Equal Pay Day on August 12; Lao Women’s Equal Pay Day on August 31; and Hmong Women’s Equal Pay Day on September 11. For certain Southeast Asian Americans, such as Hmong women, average pay is as low as 59 cents to the white male dollar. Facts like these may come as a shock to some — yet this is the reality for millions of Asian American women. That is why on Southeast Asian Equal Pay Day and every day, we need to lift up and make visible the experiences of all AAPI women.

You may think, because of movies like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, that the stereotype of AAPI women is true. While millions of moviegoers across the country poured into theaters to watch a film portraying the immaculate wealth of Asians, the lifestyles portrayed in the film couldn’t be farther from the lived experiences of millions of AAPI women right here in the U.S. On screen and off, the popular narrative is that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are high-achieving and wealthy. But average wages for Southeast Asian American women pale in comparison to the average white American man’s salary, indicating a dire need for more conversation and policy change to address the pay gap and the AAPI community.

The AAPI community is large and diverse, made up of over 50 different ethnicities and speaking over 100 languages. The diverse experiences of AAPIs are often lumped together in an attempt to create a cohesive stereotypical narrative about our communities — leading to stereotypes such as the ‘model minority’ myth, which assumes high educational attainment and financial success among all AAPIs.

But the ‘model minority’ myth is not only inaccurateit hurts our community by preventing underprivileged and underrepresented AAPIs from getting the financial and community resources that they need, because many assume that our communities are all doing well. For instance, educational attainment is not equal across the board: among the Southeast Asian American community, only 19% of Cambodian women and 20% of Hmong women have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 44% of white women. Without higher education, AAPI women may find it more difficult to secure higher-paying jobs and benefits. Many are also overrepresented in service and personal care occupations — including manicurists, hairstylists, childcare workers and personal care aides. These are all jobs that often have long hours, low wages, and few if any benefits, and expose women to a multitude of physical and health risks.

Without equal pay, many women of color — including Southeast Asian American women — will continue to struggle to afford to pay for their most basic needs, such as paying rent, sending their children to preschool, or being able to afford reproductive health care. Low wages also affect their ability to leave abusive relationships, especially ones in which they are financially dependent on their spouse or significant other.

The real, lived experiences of Southeast Asian Americans are often obscured by the ‘model minority’ myth. Not only has this myth perpetuated broad stereotypes about AAPIs, but it has also silenced the voices of those whose experiences fall outside of it. Grouping AAPIs and viewing us as a monolith is detrimental to our fight for equal pay. While certain AAPI women may have achieved pay parity, it should not negate the fact that many others still have not — and deserve to have it.

All of this becomes more even more urgent in light of recent findings about the economic status of our community. Earlier this year, new findings from the Pew Research Center indicated that the income inequality gap has grown significantly for AAPIs, and is now the widest of any racial group. With a situation this dire, we can’t afford to ignore the voices of AAPIs who don’t fit the mold and continue allowing the ‘model minority’ myth to perpetuate falsehoods and divide us as a community.

AAPIs come from many diverse backgrounds and have an array of experiences, and equal pay for Southeast Asian American women can become a reality if we listen to and uplift the diverse stories within our community. Only then will we ensure that Southeast Asian women across the country can achieve the agency they deserve over their bodies, their lives, and their families.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the Executive Director and Vimala Phongsavanh is the Policy Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to advocacy at the intersection of gender and racial justice for Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. Sung Yeon is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed project.

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